Racism persists for Asian Americans

Illustration of an Asian woman jogging through a neighborhood while abiding by social distancing guidelines, while bystanders watch her in suspicion
Armaan Mumtaz/Staff

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I recently went running in my neighborhood, Berkeley’s Elmwood district. Before leaving, I read the most recent mask order, confirming that runners do not have to wear masks if they stay 30 feet away from others. But as I was running, two different white women on two different occasions came up to me, breaking the social distancing rule to shout in my face, “Wear a mask!” Both times, white runners and cyclists had passed by, unmasked, but these white women did not shout a thing at them.

I was raised in Santa Barbara. Before COVID-19, I had never experienced overt racism. I’m not sure that that’s what I’d experienced while I was running, but it certainly felt hostile. When President Donald Trump perpetually refers to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” or “kung flu,” he divides the United States and normalizes this behavior. Trump racializes the disease in ways that cause people to target individuals who look like me: Asian.

I had always thought Berkeley was different, that it was one of the most progressive and liberal places in the country. It is progressive, but there is, as Joe Feagin explains, a racism that implicates the white population more generally. It’s not as though the white folks in Berkeley are immune to this. My white neighbors may say, “Silence is compliance” and they may condemn the killers of George Floyd, but they, too, have practiced subtle forms of racism.

From resisting public housing in their neighborhoods to arguing for legacy-based college admissions, racism persists. People of color were barred from purchasing homes in the “nicer” neighborhoods of the Bay Area, and when students of color were finally allowed to attend UC Berkeley, they weren’t always accepted into all of its campus communities.

Novelist Viet Nguyen has noted that white people might see Asian Americans as “the desirable classmate, the favored neighbor, the nonthreatening kind of person of color.” But when the president uses “us versus them” rhetoric, he suggests to his fellow white Americans that Asians are not Americans.

As Elisabeth Dennis notes, white Americans chose Asians to enter their social circles as “honorary whites,” purposefully constructing the “myth of the model minority” to “pit the minorities against each other.” We are allowed into white circles when they want us to be, especially when our presence might dampen accusations of their racism.

But now, our president’s rhetoric has made Asians “dangerous.” White people have attacked people of Asian ancestry, and they have blamed Asians in general for the pandemic. Perhaps, in the eyes of at least the two white women in my neighborhood, I was a running vector, a carrier of the kung flu.

Trump perpetuates the idea that people with Asian ancestry are perpetually foreign. It doesn’t matter that I am a second-generation Korean American; people still ask, “No, but where are you from?” Many white people teach their children — subtly and bluntly — that this is their country, and that people like me are foreigners. Trump seems to be reassuring white America that this is their country and theirs alone, and unless they vote for him their comfortable “white supremacy” will end.

Karen Brodkin explains how “white people” have “shed” their ethnic European identity and culture in order to be a part of the panethnic “white.” White supremacy has always invited foreigners of a certain color. Asian Americans could not “pass for white”; we were “yellow,” according to the Supreme Court in 1927. We were thus “people of color.” I am a “young person of color,” but, as my previous experiences suggest, I am also a “running target” akin to Ahmaud Arbery.

If I continue to go running, as I’ve loved to do, how many more white women will feel as though they have the right to yell at me? It’s very likely that the two women considered themselves “progressive,” even “woke”; after all, we are in Berkeley. But I wonder if they’d thought deeply about what their actions meant to me and to other persons of Asian ancestry, especially because they did not “correct” any of the white runners around us.

I love being an American. I grew up celebrating the Day of the Dead with my classmates; I know the difference between a bat and bar mitzvah; I appreciate how in school we share our cultural heritages. Our country is a place where we learn to see people as all that they are, their race and culture, and we learn to respect and appreciate each other. I was taught to recognize differences and to celebrate them.

I have always embraced my Korean heritage — it means as much to me as being an American — and I’ve never felt as though the two existed in opposition to the other. However, as this pandemic has continued and as I’ve taken my runs though Berkeley, I’ve increasingly been made aware of how so many Americans may only see me as my color, how they can’t see past the default position of white supremacy.

If I’m worried about these issues in Berkeley, I worry even more for other people of color, especially in more conservative areas. Each of us should contemplate how we can improve our country, to remember its values, in order to address these deeply embedded issues that do not have simple or trite solutions.

Zoe Lee-Park is a UC Berkeley junior majoring in society and environment and legal studies.